Hussein Bazaza did not grow up wanting to be a fashion designer, although he has loved sketching dresses since he was a child. “Everyone who knew me thought I would be a great fashion designer, but I never wanted to be one,” he recalls, noting instead his interest in interior design or filmmaking.
After finishing high school, however, and with his mother’s encouragement, he joined ESMOD Beirut. Although the first year was a struggle for Bazaza — he felt out of place because he was not as well versed in the fashion world as his peers — he ended up learning a lot and loving fashion design.
Upon graduating at the top of his class in 2011, he won internships with both Rabih Keyrouz in Paris, and Elie Saab in Beirut (both of whom are well-known Lebanese designers and creators of internationally acclaimed fashion houses). Three days into his internship with Elie Saab, he was offered a full time job at the company, which helped him learn the practical aspects of fashion design.
Eight months into that job, Bazaza left to join Starch, a non-profit organization that helps launch Lebanese emerging designers. According to its site, “ Starch is an annual program and a rotation of debut collections where four to six young designers are selected each year.” It was there that he started working on developing himself as a brand. “I had already planned on starting my own label when Starch was over and was saving the money I was making from selling my collection in Starch toward opening my own showroom and atelier,” explains Bazaza.
[pullquote]Lebanese don’t have confidence in their own designers, which is ironic because they are highly valued internationally[/pullquote]
At Starch, Bazaza learned a lot about how clients think and what they were looking for in their clothing, which helped him in his designs. During his time at Starch, he and the other designers were invited to participate in Fashion Forward Dubai for the first time through a free fashion show with Rabih Keyrouz (co-founder of Starch).
“There was a lot of exposure in terms of press and buyers, and that helped us a lot especially in expanding our client base in the Gulf and making sales,” says Bazaza.
After completing the fashion incubator’s yearlong program in 2014, Bazaza set out to achieve his goal of establishing his own space and atelier, having already launched his own label and garnered clients through Starch.
As a young designer just starting out, Bazaza says he ran into some challenges. To begin with, he did not have any experience running a business (while today fashion design schools do offer classes in business, ESMOD Beirut did not when he was a student there).
He also started out alone and was basically a one-man team, largely because of his limited budget. “I had no employees at the beginning, so I had to do everything by myself. Later on, I hired one employee, and the rest of the team developed six months later (today Bazaza has six employees). This was determined by the brand’s growth, but also by how much I was able to afford to pay salaries,” he explains.
This was overwhelming for Bazaza, especially since the brand’s reputation, through unsolicited media coverage, was growing at a fast rate. “I had to be everything myself, and I felt pressured because people thought the brand was much bigger than it was. I had more requests than I could cope with,” he recounts.
Limited startup funds posed another challenge for Bazaza because, as a fashion designer, he had to produce a new collection for every season. “I didn’t have any investors, and there are very few investors in fashion in Lebanon anyway, so I had to pay for everything related to a new collection from my profits,” he says, explaining that his revenues had to be divided between salaries, rents, expenses, materials, and photoshoots for the collection.
Three years into his business, and as the Hussein Bazaza brand grows, Bazaza says things have become a lot easier. “With time, this got better because my number of clients increased. I also started doing bridal wear and this brings in significant revenue. Before, we also didn’t have a lot of boutiques ordering [the ready to wear line], while today we have boutique orders from Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, and Qatar, which also helps in revenue increase,” he explains.
Bazaza says that his focus is on developing his brand as a product and not his name as a designer. “I want to be a brand found in major department stores more than I want to be a fashion designer who does couture for clients,” he says, explaining that he does couture because it rakes in revenue, but he prefers working on his ready-to-wear line, which is available in his showroom in Lebanon and in boutiques in the Gulf.
Bazaza sees some advantages to being a designer working out of Lebanon, the most important being the positive image of Lebanese designers in the region and internationally. However, he has not forgotten the difficulties he faced at the beginning and believes more could be done at the governmental level to encourage and facilitate the work of fashion design startups like his own. “One of the simple things the government can support this sector with is making the official procedures and bureaucratic paperwork related to establishing a company simpler or clearer for young designers like me,” he says.
He also wishes that the Lebanese exhibited more pride in their country’s local designers, recounting how many local boutiques refuse to carry clothes made by young Lebanese designers. “Lebanese don’t have confidence in their own designers, which is ironic because they are highly valued internationally,” he muses.